Tuesday, June 1, 2010

The Memoir Craze: High and Low Drama, and All Kinds of Crises

Hello readers! This is my week to blog, and I’m hoping my thoughts prove fun reading for all!

Over Memorial Day, I took a little time to catch up on some long-delayed reading. For you, it may have been a great juicy biography, a beautiful debut novel, maybe even a little poetry to take outside. But if you were like me, you reached for a buzz-worthy memoir. I’ve always been a little baffled by my own inclination toward reading memoirs—what is it about reading a person’s account of their own experiences that proves so entertaining? What kinds of memoirs are out there, and what do we get out of reading them?

Looking back on the “memoir craze,” which seems to have reached a kind of zeitgeist peak in 2006 with James Frey’s admission that he fictionalized certain elements of his “memoir” A Million Little Pieces, it seems that our hunger for memoirs correlates with the desire to document our own lives over Facebook and Twitter, always with a few “embellishments.” Memoirs are a kind of relativistic history-telling, a remaking of truth filtered through the author’s own experiences and perspective. David Carr’s addiction memoir The Night of the Gun beautifully addresses the strange half-truths involved in writing memoirs. Carr, lacking coherent awareness of his actions for many years of his alcohol and drug addictions, uses his techniques as a journalist to piece together a portrait of his life through those that had to bear witness to it. What we get is a memoir as subjective as Rashomon: the story is never as definitive as we’d like it to be, but makes the reader aware that creative editing is a crucial part of the memoir experience.

Most memoirs available today tend to break into two camps: first, those like Carr and Frey, telling stories of great trauma and difficult experiences, often called the “memoir of crisis.” Often involving drug addictions, brushes with death, and the ripple effects from deeply traumatic events, these memoirs often feel like epic battles told from beyond the grave; Frey fights “the fury,” his compulsion to abuse drugs which serves as the antagonist of the memoir (and a oft-articulated technique to help addicts combat their weaknesses), while Carr takes a slightly less grand tone, saying “End-stage addiction is mostly about waiting for the police, or someone, to come and bury you in your shame.” Memoirs like these, including Mary Karr’s The Liars’ Club, Elizabeth Wurtzel’s Prozac Nation, Susanna Kaysen’s Girl Interrupted, and Augusten Burroughs’ Dry and A Wolf at the Table, tend to wallow and dwell in the dark aspects of life, looking hard at the things that brought you down, rather than the things that bring you up. The effect that this can have on the reader is often one where you leave the book counting your lucky stars that this has not happened to you. You are “scared straight” by the things these writers have experienced.

The second kind of memoir, the kind that often proves a bit more appetizing on a long weekend, is the memoir of funny fallibility. These tend to be written on the offensive, where writers use humor to deploy sometimes heartbreaking, always empathetic tales, usually touching on more everyday subjects of unusual families, awkward adolescences, and the growing pains of early adulthood, marriage, and child-rearing. The king of this genre is David Sedaris; his stories of growing up in North Carolina with an eccentric family have sucked millions of readers into the memoir genre, and his compatriots Sarah Vowell, David Rakoff, Shalom Auslander, and Mike Birbiglia have all made names for themselves by telling self-deprecating stories of everyday embarrassment. Sedaris, whose early start was as a contributor for This American Life, was first discovered for work on when he began doing public readings of his diary in a Chicago club. The intimacy of his narration (sometime he has carried over to his immensely popular audiobooks) and the cringe-inducing way he negotiates both the horrors of his adolescence (his stint in child speech therapy, his guitar lessons with a pervy midget) and the poignant truths he confronts in these anecdotes (his last long visit with his mother, dying of cancer, during his sister’s wedding; his sister’s breakdown over a sad story, and his immediate desire to use it in a story). The humor of writers like Sedaris draw the reader in, their hilarity turning individual essays into must-reads, and their full collections into moving yet never depressing accounts of lives well-lived. (In the next issue for TK, I’ll be taking a look at Sloane Crosley’s new work, How Did You Get this Number, so stay tuned for my take on her version of the self-deprecating memoir.)

Perhaps what most defines the reader’s experience in reading memoir is the voice, not the events at hand. The newest trend in hot memoirs today is that of the previously crisis-free: rather than trading in knee-slapping comedy or trauma-induced rebirth, the focus is squarely on sympathy-inducing introspection. This trend first poked out its well-coiffed head with Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat Pray Love, a book I loathed on its premise alone, but one whose popularity I understand better as time goes on. Gilbert, seemingly content with her stable life, suddenly drops off a cliff when she realizes that she is emotionally unsatisfied with what she has. Blessed with the finances to do so (thanks, book advance!), Gilbert takes off on a whirlwind trip to reestablish her sense of what constitutes the good life: gorging on pasta in Italy, praying at an ashram in India, and finding a new love in Bali. This kind of narrative initially produces resentment in the reader, but ultimately we empathize with Gilbert: we’d all like to take a journey around the world to reset our appreciation of life, and for those lacking the means we can do it through her eyes. The same trend of the rejuvenation memoir comes through in Julie Powell’s Julie and Julia, Dominique Browning’s Slow Love, Rhoda Janzen’s Mennonite in a Little Black Dress, and Isabel Gilles’ Happens Every Day. Middle-aged women, previously stable or close-to-it, embark on a period of self-rediscovery, putting aside expectations of how they are supposed to be to focus on who they actually are. Sometimes these come off as “chick lit,” the female-friendly version of the addiction memoir, and the authors’ ideas often come off more like sales pitches than life stories. (As Joey noted in her review of Kim Severson’s Spoon Fed,“The idea is a little too neat. The confines of the gimmick give the reader flattened characters and uninspiring talk about food, and dim the accomplishments and complexities of a life that is clearly worth applauding.”) But nevertheless, these books make for effervescent reading, as fizzy and ultimately satisfying as a glass of lemonade.

In her 2006 piece, “Bending the Truth in a Million Little Ways,” Michiko Kakutani wrote in the New York Times, “It [A Million Little Pieces] is a case about how much value contemporary culture places on the very idea of truth. . . . Self-dramatization (in Mr. Frey's case, making himself out to be a more notorious fellow than he actually was, in order to make his subsequent “redemption” all the more impressive) is just one step removed from the willful self-absorption and shameless self-promotion embraced by the ‘Me Generation’ and its culture of narcissism.” While Kakutani is right to point out the inherent narcissism in the memoir trend (after all, what is more self-centered than writing a book that’s all about you?), we have to give these writers credit for never claiming that they are perfect. Every one of them, from the ones battling addictions to those nowadays seems that it cannot be popular without having a protagonist that is deeply and self-consciously flawed. The one thing I can unequivocally applaud in the memoir trend is the realization for readers and writers that we are all flawed; that, even when we are gallivanting about on whirlwind adventures and experiencing extraordinary things, that we are all still works in progress, and journeys that need chronicling.

What great memoirs have I left off this list? And which writers are taking us into the memoir's future?


  1. A memoir can also be literary or historical. In a literary memoir, the specific events of the writer's life may be less important than the aesthetic creation they inspire. In an historical memoir, the writer's personal experience sheds light on larger social or political events. Alison Bechdel's stunning graphic memoir, Fun Home, is both of these.

  2. You're right, Ruth, I missed incorporating the literary and historical memoir--what would you recommend for the former? As for the later, I second your recommendation of Fun Home, it is terrific! As is Persepolis, another historical graphic memoir...I know there are others out there, but they're escaping me. Where might the graphic memoir be taking us that is different than the standard memoir?